Two point five years ago, I had to leave my position as a nurse in Critical Care due to probably the most shameful and disturbing reasons a nurse can imagine.
It feels nothing short of miraculous that I’ve been given an opportunity to return.
(Although some might say I’m returning to the scene of the crime, and they would technically be correct.)
For nearly five of my 14 years as a nurse, I worked in CCU and loved the job, despite its flaws. I felt at home in the role. But I completely mismanaged the stress in my life, making tragic and regretful decisions.
For the background on my detour away from “overachiever” into “Real Life Nurse Jackie” check out this BLOG I wrote, publicly declaring myself as an addict.
I was let go from the job, spent three months in treatment and submerged myself in recovery. Since returning to work, I’ve been employed in lower acuity areas than CCU, working my way up – but stayed on night shift because it’s where I’ve always felt most comfortable mentally and physically.
Probably beginning somewhere early last Fall, I felt in my soul it was time to take another step forward. I reached out to key people in administration, asking their blessing to apply for a new position. I also talked it over with my case manager and my sober support system.
I had to ask my case manager because I’m not allowed to work wherever I want. I’m enrolled in a monitoring program for another 2.5 years that restricts some employment, but as long as I remain sober, most doors remain open.
Even though I’m under strict supervision, my nursing license (so far, cross your fingers) is unmarred. That’s a benefit of WHPS; a statewide alternative to discipline program. I wrote all about how it works HERE, dispelling myths and detailing the true nature of this type of probation.
WHPS enables nurses to keep licenses intact, but it can be a substantial challenge to gain employment after being found diverting, stealing/using drugs or even abusing alcohol. This is especially the case if time lapsed between jobs. Too many employers, even in Washington state, simply fire employees on the spot, leaving them to navigate sobriety, employment and licensure on their own. The consequences of this can lead to isolation and suicidal ideation/attempt. Rejection from potential employers, lack of income or insurance to pay for treatment, and the debilitating hit to self-esteem can make prevailing in sobriety near impossible. It’s hard enough some days to stay on a sober track when life is running smoothly.
I don’t know how to convey this without sounding cliche, but not for a second do I take my continued employment for granted. I’ve done the hard work of recovery, but the support of the organization has been priceless. I can only hope to show this by being accountable and maintaining my integrity and professionalism. Choosing to live “Sober out loud” and advocating to end stigma is a part of my amends as well.
So, I’m halfway through my sentence. I graduate WHPS in August 2021! Thirty-One short months! Approximately 133 brief weeks! You can tell I’m joyfully counting down. (I’ll also turn 40 that year – no small feat in itself. I’ll invite you to the party.)
Most nurses in “the program” do not return to the same department, or even the same hospital; for many good reasons. I’ve gone back to the exact department the administration escorted me away from in May 2016. The management has changed, the unit name and skill specialties have morphed, and there’s been a turnover in employees. But physically, it’s the same, with many of the same faces.
I won’t lie, it’s freaked me out a little. I’m worried about the staff being OK with me. I’m cognizant of any discomfort or mistrust that might linger. During my hiatus, interactions with former coworkers were overwhelmingly compassionate and positive. But I wouldn’t blame anyone who feels hurt or hesitant. Fortunately, recovery teaches the difference between guilt and shame; between honoring someone’s feelings and taking things personally. Shame is the worst. I’m lucky to say that it’s possible to find strength on the other side of it.
Of course, I have some fear and embarrassment. I’m not impenetrable to the opinions of others; my self-esteem’s not fully restored. It’s just that my drive to move forward and enjoy life and my drive to end the stigma of addiction and recovery is greater than any shame, anxiety or doubt that persists.
That sounds brave. I don’t feel brave. I just feel…determined. And brave doesn’t mean fearless anyway. It doesn’t mean I have it all together. It just means I’m doing it despite fear. Recently said by one of my heroes in a women’s recovery group: “Courage, not Confidence”. I’m holding on to that like a talisman.
I worked my first official shift back this week. The night before, I prepared healthy food and packed my lunch bag. Coffee was set to brew at 4:45am, and my favorite scrubs were laid out. (Yes, I’m now working DAYSHIFT! After 14 years on nights. More to come on that soon, trust me.)
Excited, I went to bed early and woke up with enthusiasm. Not that I was mindlessly giddy. But overall I’ve felt really positive about this decision. I really only had one major dread going in.
The nurse who initially reported me still works on this unit.
Let me state very clearly: I am GRATEFUL to this nurse; the role they played was beneficial in my recovery. They did the RIGHT thing. I am solely culpable for the situation and I do not harbor anger toward the informant. I needed help desperately, and probably wouldn’t have turned myself in. Even though I was privately seeing a chemical dependency counselor, I was struggling to stay clean. I am GRATEFUL this person brought attention to the charge nurse. (leaving nurse gender-neutral to protect privacy)
Total transparency; I find it difficult to feel grateful for the way this person addressed me publicly at the end of a shift. Regardless of the very positive outcome, that memory brings back anguish and humiliation. The thought of coming face to face is like facing my own atrocities all over again. Seeing each other would be inevitable, but a lot of nurses work there. I figured I’d get into a comfortable routine and eventually we’d cross paths.
This is not at all what happened.
As I walked down the hall on my very first day to approach the very first nurse I’d receive a report from; irony laughed in my face.
I was looking right at this nurse.
Out of all the assignments I could have ended up with; out of all the nurses working. I was about to spend 20 minutes with the one nurse I wanted to avoid.
I think I might have said out loud, “You’ve got to be f***ing kidding me”.
(As I write this out, I recognize something I never have before. Experiencing this from their point of view and having to report me must have been traumatizing to a degree as well. They were thrown into this mess by me. They didn’t ask for this. I’m sure they never wanted to be labeled the informant. There’s really nothing left for me to feel but compassion.)
Seeing each other was not as awkward as my imagination had created. I was greeted “Welcome back”; we smiled and acted like professionals.
What can I do but laugh? The one thing I was most afraid of occurred in the first half hour.
Moving on, I was met with hugs and a welcoming atmosphere. I experienced a lightness I’ve not felt in a long time at work, and I settled in to the practice of patient care.
Why would I ever ever do a drug? I thought.
I feel great. I enjoy being a nurse. I love this feeling of productivity and doing service. I’m not a thief. I don’t even like to be drunk. I don’t like to be out of control. Why would I have done any of those things?
For a passing moment, I felt completely dissociated from the “me” that injected IV fentanyl and consumed a mad amount of Vicodin, Percocet, or Oxycodone. The “me” that put procuring drugs to escape my own pain above everyone and everything else in my life.
I felt like the “me” before addiction. Eager, energetic, balanced and healthy.
I thought: working in Critical Care is going to be perfect. So what if there’s access to drugs? It’s not going to be a problem. I would never commit such a horrible act. I’m fine!!!
Then I thought: Not so fast, idiot.
“I would never” was precisely my mindset the first decade of my career. I’d NEVER cross that boundary. Until I did it myself, I could not wrap my brain around how a nurse would steal narcotics from their workplace. It was a foreign, forbidden, and ridiculous concept.
But a series of events led me to become compulsive and addicted. I know what many of you must be thinking, especially my sober friends.
“Why the F have you returned to a department where you did this?”
“If CCU turned you into an addict, and your sober life is thriving, why would you go back?”
Those are great questions. And you’ll have to stay tuned for the answers. Next time, I’ll share why CCU didn’t make me an addict and what’s different today.
I’ll also detail how it felt to encounter Fentanyl – my drug of choice – on my first day back.
I feel happier this week than I can recall. I texted one of my best sober friends:
“I might have sung in my kitchen while I cooked this week. Also, I woke up at 5:45am all by myself. No alarm. Goddamn post-acute sober pink cloud.”
Getting off nights is a big part of this transformation. So is the redemption my soul is experiencing, finding I didn’t completely destroy my career. I’m happy to have a job that challenges me intellectually. I’m happy for the opportunity to make amends to the organization, my coworkers, my patients, and the nursing profession. It’s not a privilege I’m taking lightly. I know the rate of relapse. I know this could be my last chance at a blemish-free nursing license.
I’m primarily happy that by returning I can demonstrate to employers that rehabilitation reigns over discipline, and offer hope to nurses who are just starting a sober journey.
I hope to give back more than I have ever taken. To tip the karmic scales by showing up every day honest and willing. And for all healthcare professionals that have or are suffering from the shame addiction has caused in their lives – I hope to prove recovery is possible.
Cheers and Gratitude upon Gratitude,
If you are in need of addiction treatment and you are a healthcare provider in WA state, please contact Washington Health Professional Services at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-236-2880 for a confidential consultation.
I am always available for anyone looking to explore sobriety. Our conversation is guaranteed confidential.
And of course – if you’d like to explore working with me as your life or recovery coach – check out my website http://www.recoverandrise.com
www.yesyoucanrn.com (Lists every state that has an alternative to discipline program)
SAMHSA – Substance abuse and mental health services administrations – national helpline